01/05/2021 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – The challenges faced by Iraq during the year 2020 were both predictable and unprecedented. The year began with significant security-related challenges that were later reframed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The year ended with a stark economic downturn, which threatens to negatively impact the country for months. While these challenges affect the entire country, Iraq’s Nineveh Governorate was already struggling with the consequences of ISIS’s genocide from 2014-2017.
2020 opened with an unexpected drone strike in Baghdad that substantially changed the security tenor throughout the country. The Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), who control substantial swaths of the Nineveh Governorate, were dwelt a significant blow on January 2, 2020, when the US conducted a drone strike in Baghdad which killed Iranian Qud’s General Qassem Soleimani and Iraq’s Paramilitary Chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. This event followed a significant escalation of US-Iranian tensions that had led the coalition against ISIS to pause joint activities for three weeks.
Iraq’s Christian community had mixed reactions. Some worried that it would start a new war between Iran and the US, putting the Nineveh Governorate in the conflict’s crosshairs. Others thought that it was a necessary action that would keep the PMF restrained.
For example, one Christian worried, “There are political results for the incident, and all will be in Iraq. Iraqis will suffer from the possible war between [the] US and Iran targeting each other. I hope I don’t lose more friends, relatives, due to war.”
Another said, “That’s supposed to have been done years ago. [But]we must consider the amount of guns those militias have before doing a big crime like that. The militia will be angry and use their guns to take revenge from anyone related.”
From January until February/March, when COVID-19 began hitting Iraq hard, the country’s security environment was incredibly tense. It is still not comparable to before. But with the onset of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown, some did wonder how it was possible that Iraq could enforce a lockdown “semi-successfully” when they could not stop ISIS from invading. It was a perception that appeared to validate further the belief that the militias had become incredibly emboldened following the defeat of ISIS.
Indeed, the year saw several targeted assassinations of human rights activists and anyone who spoke against the militia’s influence. These further validated the commonly held belief that militias are the immediate security challenge facing Iraq. And for an area such as the Nineveh Governorate, home to communities already vulnerable because of the ISIS genocide, it is a security challenge that deters many from living there.
COVID-19 is believed to have entered Iraq through Iran, which was the epicenter of the pandemic in the Middle East. The security challenges which face Iraq because of Iranian influence thus became a contributor to the pandemic challenges the country continues facing. Reports of COVID-19 began in February, but it wasn’t until March that the virus’s presence led to some type of large scale response. Many expressed concern that the Nineveh Governorate would be devastated by the virus because of the lack of infrastructure. Yet, the devastation never materialized in the sense that the numbers often remained fairly low compared to the rest of the country. However, because there is no infrastructure, cases are likely underreported.
At first, many of Nineveh’s residents did not understand the seriousness of the pandemic. As time continued, the implications began to be felt. Testing was either inaccessible or painfully slow, as given Nineveh’s disputed status, results had to be analyzed in Baghdad. Residents grew very frustrated as time continued. For example, one said, “I think I am ready to say with full confidence: I don’t care. (First a) series of wars, then ISIS and displacement. Later a lack of jobs and investments, now and finally coronavirus. What a miserable life I’ve had!! I can’t remember staying happy for an entire month in my whole life.”
The pandemic forced UNITAD to pause for months their investigation into the crimes of ISIS. This setback is substantial. The United Nations was already slow to recognize the crimes of ISIS as genocide; thus, UNITAD arrived in Iraq later than ideal for preserving evidence. Pausing the investigation created further delays. The pandemic also forced the Coalition Against ISIS to pause or scale back several of their planned activities. ISIS did increase their attacks in certain parts of Iraq, but not in Nineveh.
A United Nations Security Report about the status of ISIS noted that the pandemic impacted the extremists’ ability to travel. The report warned that ISIS “has had a captive audience during lockdown and if it has successfully used this for planning and recruitment purposes, it is possible that the easing of restrictions in non-conflict zones will see a spike in attacks once targets become available again.”
Iraq ended the year by devaluing the currency, an unprecedented move that has not occurred for decades in the country despite years of worsening economic conditions. The corruption and violence which has plagued the country, coupled with the pandemic, has left the country’s economy crippled. For Nineveh, the impact is profound.
Nineveh relies upon humanitarian assistance, which has evolved into a type of sub-economy that depends upon the dollar. Devaluing Iraq’s currency will naturally impact infrastructure development, the full consequences of which are likely to be felt in 2021. However, one of the immediate impacts is for those whose livelihoods were restored as part of humanitarian assistance and/or whose livelihood relies in some way upon the dollar. By devaluing Iraq’s currency, these livelihoods suddenly lost value, and their expected profits plummeted.
The pandemic also impacted the ability of residents to pursue their jobs. Women were a hard-hit demographic, as they often can only find jobs that revolve around the home (such as offering a maid service). With society locked down, such services were no longer pursued. Nineveh did not lock down as stringently as other parts of Iraq since it is the country’s agriculture belt. But for those who do pursue this line of work, navigating pandemic related measures on top of security challenges increases the workload laborers must navigate. This forces laborers to decrease their product output or maintain at the same level. Either way, the result is discouraging to economic growth.
SOURCE International Christian Concern
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